The Washerwoman’s Genes

February 2, 2007

Washboard: My Captains

Filed under: Washboard — by WWG @ 11:40 am

The bits I found in the Brooklyn Eagle Online about my great-great-uncles, Captains Josiah and James, piqued my interest in them, and reading George Matteson’s Tugboats of New York helped me feel closer to the lives they lived. Shipping is a manifestly physical occupation, and Matteson unpretentiously and without melodrama conveys the arduousness and extremity of the work involved. I am so struck by the concert of humanity that brought about the operation of the harbor, by the cooperativeness and dedication to the perfection of the routine, by the spare poetry of a crew working silently for an hour or more under the direction of bells and hand signals.

I think of my father, the grand-nephew of James and Josiah, who also was an entrepreneur and a master, not of marine trades, but in building. He had every skill necessary for building, from drafting to roofing and everything in between. He had the physical strength of a laborer, the hands of a craftsman, and the nuanced know-how of the long practitioner.

I remember him once telling me, in showing me how to make something (I no longer remember what), that there were three sides to a line: the right side, the left side, and the middle, and you had to decide where you were going to cut, and stick to it. That bit of instruction has stayed with me, as an example of the esoteric-practical often obscured by the humbleness of the tasks involved.

I savor these terms that would have been daily vocabulary of James and Josiah: hawser, shifting, bitts, capstan, catenary, manila rope.

Reading Tugboats of New York drove me back on the web to find out more, if possible, about the Brooklyn waterfront. I thought I had milked out all there was online about my captains, but when I started searching web-wide I came across some additional information.

Selections from the Nautical Gazette, a source frequently cited by Matteson, are online through the Tugboat Enthusiasts of the Americas, and Capt. James comes up several times.

On Nov. 26, 1891, his boat is listed as “Up for inspection:” EDWARD ANNAN, E. J. Burger, of Brooklyn.

On November 1, 1906, the boat is listed again: “Atlantic Docks have a large number of tugs hauled up overnight awaiting good weather. They are . . . Also the tugs ANNIE R. WOOD, CASTOR, EDWARD ANNAN, HENRY D. McCORD . . .”

In April 25, 1907, the Gazette again reports, “Laid up at the Atlantic Basin: Capt. Burger’s EDWARD ANNAN, Carroll Bros. SEVEN BROTHERS, and Peter Cahill’s O. L. HALENBECK.”

Finally, on May 23 of that same year, when Elisha James would have been age 66, the Gazette reports: “Capt. James Burger has retired, selling his tug EDWARD ANNAN to his former agent, Wayne Knight, Jr.” By the 1910 census, James and Elsie are living in Esopus, on his “own income.”

So, James did indeed raise the tug after its sinking at its pier in 1898 and returned it to duty, Matteson’s reports of scant profitable work for tugs notwithstanding. (There is, in these transcriptions at least, no mention of the sinking.) Capt. James worked the tug for almost ten more years.

One more note about the EDWARD ANNAN: The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum has on its site a list of all the boats that ever worked the lake and the canal linking it to the Hudson, and a boat called the Edward Annan is on it. A researcher upstate has informed me, however, that this Edward Annan was a canal boat with a distinct history of ownership from my tugboat. He provided me with some instructions on how to trace my boat at the National Archives. I am going to ask him, though, about the name. Is there a particular reason why these boats are named after this man?

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